January 9, 2015
In December, the Risk-Monger showed how a group of scientists planned a programme of political activism around the IUCN to ban neonicotinoid pesticides prior to getting funding from anti-pesticide, anti-industry groups to conduct their research. Although reaction to my blogs were often hostile, I felt vindicated after reading an article just before Christmas in the main Dutch newspaper, the Volkskrant, quoting one of the original anti-neonicotinoid activist scientists, Henk Tennekes, admitting that:
“If we do not ban neonicotinoids, we will be on the threshold of an ecological catastrophe. Entire ecosystems will collapse due to insects going extinct. Of course there was a campaign plan, and the participants knew that”, he (Tennekes) said. “I get that some see this as an unscientific approach, but in this situation I think it is entirely justifiable.” From Dutch, see translation: Scientists Aim to Ban Neonicotinoid Pesticides (Volkskrant article)
I do not think this type of action (of scientists starting a research project with a political objective prior to gathering evidence) is in any way justifiable. Rather, I find it offensive to the scientific institutions to which these individuals consider themselves representatives. Such actions also disgraced the IUCN and diminished public trust in science.
To these individuals, I only have two words: Rules Matter. Scientists need to respect certain rules and follow acceptable norms and standards in how they conduct themselves. Some rules are codified by their establishments, some are statutory, many are based on common sense while they all come from the simple dictum: respect the traditions of the scientific institutions that have earned the public trust over centuries. I feel the IUCN anti-neonic activist scientists did not respect basic scientific codes of practice, and the enormous support I have personally received in the last month seems to endorse that view.
Tennekes’ comment crystalises what is one of the biggest problems of environmental activists (and activist scientists) – that they believe that their noble mission of saving the planet over-rides any ethical rules of behaviour. Groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth have long rejected adopting ethical codes of conduct for their activists, and yet they feel no qualms in imposing their rules on others. When scientists start behaving like this in their policy activism, I am afraid it should no longer be ignored – rules do indeed matter … for everyone!
- Political motivation
Simply put, a scientist does not start with the conclusion (provide publications to be used to ban neonicotinoids) prior to conducting research (read over 800 scientific documents to see what are the main causes of bee decline). Even more simply put, do not place the banning of a product as the main objective for your research. There is a certain role for the scientist in the policy process – to be of service to the policy-maker but not to take the lead (as Churchill once said, scientists should be on tap, but not on top). In 2010, the IUCN activist scientists admitted that they had decided to use their white coats to play policy. While it is normal that all individuals have political views, what makes a scientist valuable in providing evidence is the understanding that their involvement is to be impartial, fact-based and objective. That they would start their research by designing a biased political campaign and then shaping the evidence to support their ambitions is a violation of the public trust in science as the neutral foundation for policy debate.
- Lack of transparency
Who actually are the members of the IUCN anti-neonic taskforce? We do not know. They do not list the members on their website and we see different claims of membership numbers in different texts that are released. One of the implied members, Matthias Liess, did not declare his involvement in his EFSA declaration of interest (even though he is listed as an author in articles that acknowledged financial support from the anti-pesticides foundations supporting the IUCN taskforce). When we speak about a body presenting itself as the international voice on the state of the science on bee health, shouldn’t we know who they are? Shouldn’t we know what bee research experience they have?
And how much money have they received from these anti-pesticides foundations? Once again, we do not know. Nothing is mentioned on the taskforce website and the Triodos Foundation has created a murky structure to funnel other individuals’ and foundations’ donations via a separate account of an unregistered organisation (known as the Support Fund for Independent Research on Bee Decline and Systemic Pesticides). In the EU Transparency Registry, Triodos has declared no financial contributions for lobbying (although this clearly is such a case). It is the sweet smell of hypocrisy that activists scream for others, especially industry, to be transparent but easily turn a blind eye to such double standards.
- Lack of objectivity
The IUCN anti-neonic taskforce was not formed by assembling the best and the brightest of the bee research community. It was formed by a select group of likeminded researchers who excluded scientists they did not agree with. It is essentially a private club of anti-pesticides academics funded by anti-pesticides foundations to produce anti-pesticides papers while positioning itself as an international scientific body. Peer review becomes a much maligned concept when it involves submitting papers in mediocre journals to be peer-reviewed by their friends. Worse, as mentioned in the second blog, when members of this special club isolate themselves from other scientists and other ideas, confirmation bias becomes unavoidable. No scientist should ever be trained to surround themselves only with thinkers with whose ideas they are comfortable.
- Lack of realism
Some assumed members of the IUCN anti-neonic taskforce have been sharing ideas that are not very intelligent, but when repeated and shared enough, perhaps might become believable. Recall in an earlier blog how Dave Goulson stated that neonicotinoids do not actually work and that farmers need to be re-educated (this recommendation even made it into the concluding IUCN anti-neonic taskforce document). Delightfully, when faced with the reality that UK farmers were facing massive oilseed rape crop losses from the first year of the European Commission’s precautionary ban on neonicotinoids, Goulson flatly declared that UK farmers would need to plant something else next year (never mind that oilseed rape is the third largest crop in the UK). That may be how a creationist thinks, but surely not the thought pattern of a scientist. As Goulson surrounds himself with other “post-normal” scientists, such confirmation bias inevitably sets in.
- Use of PR hacks to spread research findings
One of the smelliest aspects of the 2010 IUCN activist scientist strategy document was the conscious decision of the scientists to employ several PR hacks to propagate their activism. PR hacks don’t look for dialogue or exchanging scientific viewpoints, but rather on winning campaigns.They nailed their colours to the mast when they ultimately decided on former Greenpeace media manager, Mirella von Lindenfels, who has made a name for herself in promoting activist science front groups like IPSO. Hardly dialogue driven, when, after four years, the IUCN anti-neonic taskforce only has one external link on their website, and it is to the Pesticide Action Network’s anti-neonicotinoid campaign in the US. Hardly significant research (… but great PR).
The IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides has been set up essentially as a political front group – they do not do any original research, are not transparent on their membership or amount of funding and was formed to do PR and political activism. Were there any rules?
I suspect these IUCN activist scientists genuinely believe their predictions of imminent ecological collapse (ie, I do not feel these individuals have intentionally lied). I also understand how it must be incredibly frustrating for them that the mainstream bee research community and the main scientific journals (the ones with impact factors greater than 2) have rejected their findings and publications. But that does not justify these individuals behaving in such a manner (no matter how noble they may think their intentions may be) where they bypassed the normal scientific procedures and engaged in political activism. Even if they are right (and the mainstream scientific community is wrong), such improper scientific behaviour has discredited anything they have to contribute to the debate. This behaviour has also diminished the public trust in scientific institutions.
Rules indeed do matter.